Help me! And help us all! For the sake of GOOD music!

event_image Will you help me win? Do you want to be a part of music history? Will you help us ALL win?

Click on the picture to head over to the Facebook invite, and click “I’m Attending!” and be a part of the release of this momentous album!

I will be ever-appreciative and may even provide you with cookies in exchange for your assistance (this does not constitute a bribe… I just like cookies)

Many Thanks,

The Art of the Jewish Journey

This post is cross posted to the URJ KESHER Blog, where I’m also a contributor. They’ve got good stuff there, too.

Leonard Cohen – prolific songwriter, singer, musician, poet, novelist, and philosopher – is a music hero. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is also a Companion of the Order of Canada – our country’s highest civilian honour. These aren’t mere platitudes bestowed without good reason: his career spans six decades and is unwaveringly progressing; Lou Reed, front-man of The Velvet Underground, has labeled Cohen as being amongst “the highest and most influential echelon of songwriters.” Not bad for an observant Jew from the Montreal suburbs.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admittedly love his music, but what has impresses me most about Cohen is his desire to infuse his connection to Judaism in all that he creates. For him, Judaism isn’t just one sphere of many in his life, it is a ubiquitous reality. Listen to his music, read his poems, or watch him on stage, and it is clear that a Jewish stream flows through all he does. In his music and poetry, Cohen has incorporated Machzor liturgy, Torah ethics, and Tanakh stories (think the opening verse of “Hallelujah”). He also observes Shabbat, even while on tour. Impressive.

And yet, there are those who would accuse him of reneging against his Judaism. You see, Leonard Cohen also embraces a Zen-oriented lifestyle which – for some – is sufficient grounds to expunge him from the Jewish people. Heavy.

In his 2006 “Book of Longing,” Cohen responds to these accusations with poetic eloquence:

Anyone who says
I’m not a Jew
is not a Jew
I’m very sorry
but this is final.

The pen is mightier, indeed.

It seems to me that Leonard Cohen offers a pretty good model of pluralistic Judaism. His argument that a monolithic interpretation of Judaism is inherently antithetical to what Judaism is about is almost Talmudic in its essence. It bears a close resemblance to the oft quoted passage “shiv’im panim laTorah,” that “there are seventy faces to the Torah” (B’midbar Rabbah 13:15). Many Jews could learn from Cohen.

It also seems to me that this man would fit in well at Jewish camp – a place where Judaism isn’t just one sphere of life; isn’t just an item from 10:00-11:00 on the schedule; isn’t confined to the sanctuary or the library. Judaism at our camps is effervescent. Certainly, it manifests itself in different individual ways – music, sports, programming, environmentalism, prayer, and yes, Torah study – but it is most definitely akin to the life Cohen leads: omnipresent and profound.

At our camps, we embrace the notion that there is no monolithic definition of Judaism, or what it means to live a Jewish life. We know that the beauty of Judaism is that every Jew has the ability to find a different, unique face of the Torah and see it in their own way, even while we are all learning and living from the same Book. If Cohen went to a URJ Camp, nobody would tell him he’s not a Jew. Here, we embrace the journey that is Judaism.

So go find some of Leonard’s music or writings, and spend some time with them. Truly, there is a Jewish journey within his art.

A Brewing Conspiracy

I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any means. I’m a big fan of the “assumption of good-will” policy, and as a result, my dad often accuses me of being too trusting. But I belive that I’ve stumbled upon a new conspiracy.

It involves airlines and beer companies. Here’s how it plays out:

Step 1: Airlines purposefully delay flights to popular destinations that I need to get to (i.e. New York City) so that…

Step 2: Airport bars can charge ridiculous prices for a pint of beer (i.e. $8.99 for a Rickard’s Red), knowing full well that…

Step 3: Jesse, out of boredom and thirst will purchase said ridiculously priced beer.

Coincidence… or well thought out beer marketing stratgey?
Either way I’m still stuck in Ottawa waiting for my flight.
Happy Day.


Sundays are spent on the train heading out of the city. New York is really a collection of hundreds of little cities, and riding the train outside of it helps you realize that… Trees and suburbs and rocks – beautiful, but less diverse. More to life in 3 blocks than in 3 acres. I’m always amazed at how quickly it becomes forrest after leaving this island. Delightful to escape for a little while each week.

One reason, and one reason only…

“Nuclear (pronounced ‘nuke-you-lar’) war would be the be-all end-all of too many people and too many parts of our planet.”

~Sarah Palin

My American friends: even if you forget the fact that she doesn’t understand the complexities of the economy, and even if you forget that she doesn’t understand the complexities of foreign policy, and even if you forget the fact that she doesn’t know the name of the American in charge of soldiers in Afghanistan, PLEASE, for the love of God remember that she doesn’t have a grasp of basic English sentence structure.

Remind you of anyone?

That’s all I’m asking. So, thanks…

Salvation via…

An interesting survey popped up on my newsfeed tonight, courtesy of Apparently someone is concerned with how much room there is in heaven for non-Christians, and they have enlisted the internet to poll the public as to how us heathens are gonna get in. Take a look at the poll:

Only Way Non-Christians Enter Heaven
[] Accept Christ
[] Good Works
[] Baptism
[] Confess Sin
[] Be a Good Person
[] Believe in any God
[] No One Really Knows
[] Donate Money to Church
[] Refrain from Alcohol
[] Refrain from Masterbation

Well then. That’s a pretty all-encompassing list… good to know that I still have multiple pathways to eternal bliss. Out of curiosity, I googled “Way non Jews enter heaven“. The top few hits? Links right back to the same survey posted above. As clear an indicator of a difference in religious priorities as there ever was.

So while others are busy running around thinking about how to save all the eternally damned souls of the world, I’m content to gear up for Tisha b’Av, when I’ll be thinking about how to remedy some of the worldly damnations we have to deal with… let’s start with those Olympics.

Irrational Theological Yoga (with Maimonides)

It’s that time of year, folks. The time when Jews get really sad and stop eating. The time when we cry about our past that we can’t seem to let go of and spend all day avoiding each other’s eyes.

No, it’s not the family reunion.

We’re coming up on Tisha b’Av, my favourite of the religious practices avoided by Reform Judaism. I say avoided because we haven’t really expunged it from the realm of “normative” Reform Judaism (a concept that I acknowledge is itself highly specious), we’ve just pushed it to the fringes of what we do. I imagine that part of the reason for it’s relegation to the land of tznius and shatnes is that Tisha b’Av always takes place during the summer, when attendance at shul is down and most of the dedicated member base aren’t around. I would be curious to see what a Reform observance of Tisha b’Av would look like if it were in September, right after Simchat Torah.

In any case, it seems that many Reform Jews have a fragile relationship with Tisha b’Av. Most Reform Jews don’t do anything at all to acknowledge the day. At many of our camps, there is some sort of ceremony that is largely tied to the creation of Israel and it’s successes in light of our history of persecution. And then there are those Reform Jews that try and engage with the central meaning of the day – the destruction of the Temples. I would be willing to wager that out of those who observe some form of rememberance – either through fasting, prayer, study, or the such – none actually wish to see the beit hamkidash restored. For those Reform Jews that do observe Tisha b’Av, the day is about something else. So what is it about?

The URJ’s Jewish Holidays website has this to say:

“Reform Judaism has never assigned a central religious role to the ancient Temple. Therefore, mourning the destruction of the Temple in such an elaborate fashion did not seem meaningful. More recently, in Reform Judaism Tishah B’Av has been transformed into a day to remember many Jewish tragedies that have occurred throughout history.”

Ok, fine. Fair enough. We’ve got Rememberance Day in Canada, and there’s Memorial Day in the USA. But collective historical memory is nothing new to Jews. It’s no Reform innovation to say that we need to recall our past tragedies. So what’s going on?

Rabbi Lewis M. Barth, professor emeritus of midrash and related literature at Hebrew Union College, posits a modern Reform approach to the day in this week’s Reform Voices of Torah:

“Tishah B’Av could be a day that we spend in self-reflection and self-examination regarding (1) the legal, economic, social, moral, and religious issues of our own time, (2) the ways our congregations and communities might measure ourselves and society against our commitments to social justice, and (3) the obligations we have to take responsibility for helping to make this a better world.”

Ok, that’s good, too. Great, actually – a perfect model of Reform Jewish practice. But it’s also no Reform innovation to suggest that we need to think about how to better our socity. Ever heard of tikkun olam? Do we need Tisha b’Av to highlite the importance of tikkun olam in Reform Judaism?

This past week, Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman responded to Rabbi Barth’s drash, with the following question:

“How far should we be willing to go in re-adopting what so many of us believe to be antiquated and outmoded observances, beliefs, and rituals? How far ought we be willing to stretch ourselves ideologically when it comes to these concepts which our Reform fore-bearers jettisoned?

Things in Jewish blog-land are never dull. I’ll respond to the idea of “stretch[ing] ourselves ideologically” in a moment. First, here’s an excerpt from David A.M. Wilensky‘s response to Rabbi Shwartzman’s response:

“Does mourning the loss of the immense and rich culture of European Jewry that existed before the Shoah mean that we desire to return to a ghettoized, isolationist shtetl lifestyle? Obviously that’s not what is meant when we mourn the loss of that culture. We accept that a Jewish way of life, full of culture, came to an end and we mourn its loss.”

I’m not sure how much unpacking David’s reponse needs – it’s pretty straightforward. I recommend reading the rest of what he has to say. I happen to agree (mostly) with him on this one. For Reform Jews, Tisha b’Av is not about tying ourselves down to an Orthodox conception of the holiday, nor is it about re-establishing a caste system. In that light, and going back to Rabbi Shwartzman’s posting, I do think that the holiday can be about stretching ourselves ideologically. I also happen to think that that’s what all of Reform theology and practice should be about – stretching ourselves.

I (and I don’t believe I’m alone on this one) have always believed that Reform Judaism is verbular – it is a dynamic movement. Indeed, we are a movement. We’re unsatisfied with stagnant practices and beliefs solely for the sake of maintaining the status quo. Why then should we be afraid of stretching ourselves on Tisha b’Av? How about some theological yoga? Hell, even Maimonides knows that observances are useless unless they direct us towards the greater good:

“There are days when all Israel fasts because of the troubles that happened to them, in order to awaken the hearts and open the pathways of repentance… so that in the memory of these matters we will return to doing the good.”

~ Mishneh Torah, (Ta’anit 5:1)

Even some members of the Modern Orthodox world seem to be acknowledging that Tisha b’Av doesn’t have to be about a restoration of any sort, but is more about fighting against political and societal corruption:

…But by 70 CE the whole [Temple] thing was probably looking a bit dated. How long could the [Beit Hamikdash] have gone on for anyway? Certainly by the middle ages the notion of having a temple and sacrificing animals would have been totally ridiculous, and even by Chazal‘s time I think it was just not feasible… By the end, the Temple had become a totally corrupt institution. (Actually even near the beginning). And the Priests were a political power base which Chazal didn’t care for too much.”

As for me, I think within Reform Judaism, the “raging” debate over observance of Tisha b’Av is part of the greater debate on the inclusion of rational vs. irrational practices. As I’ve noted earlier, I think Judaism (and religion, really) isn’t an inherently rational institution, so to try and square everything out is like trying to push a square block through a triangle hole. At some point, you’re going to distort the square a little too much. Is it rational to observe Tisha b’Av when we have no desire to see the Beit Hamkidash restored? Nope. In no way. Why mourn something you don’t want back. The reason we mourn things is because we lament their loss, and I think it’s completely irrational to mourn the destruction of the Temple. But I also think that’s ok.

I think we should be irrational. I think we try way to hard too rationalize everything, and we are worse off for that. Let Tisha b’Av be a time when we embrace the irrationality that exists within our traditions and stretch ourselves a little. When we mourn the destruction of the Temples, what is hidden behind the irrationality of that mourning? It is the opportunity to think about political corruption and the ways in which we can better society, not for the inherent worth of doing so, but for the sake of embracing a hugely significant part of our history.

Degrassi as Foreign Policy

Meet Losang Rabgey, she’s the National Geographic Emerging Explorer and co-founder of Machik, a nonprofit helping communities on the Tibetan plateau. She sums up what should be every country’s foreign policy platform in four short sentences:

“My cousin in Tibet is an illiterate subsistence farmer. By accident of birth, I was raised in the West and have a Ph.D. The task of our generation is to cut through the illusion that we inhabit separate worlds. Only then will we find the heart to rise to the daunting but urgent challenges of global disparity.:

I’m lucky enough to say that I have had the continual pleasure of working with people from a multitude of cultural and geographical backgrounds. In particular, I have spent a great deal of time working with youth from across America, Canada, and the world. Right now, I happen to be working in New Jersey with a phenomenal group of teens.

One of the byproducts of spending so much time with Americans is having to put up with a great deal of humour directed at Canada and my Canadian-ness. I’m used to it – I roll with the punches, and poke fun right back at the Americans’ quirks. As a result of this vast experience in being the butt end of Canadian jokes, I have come to surmise that a book has been compiled and circulated amongst all Americans detailing the steps they should take when meeting Canadians, because I have virtually the same experience every time I meet a new group. It looks something like this:

How to meet a Canadian: What Americans must say when meeting someone from North of the 49th Parallel.

Step One: “Can you say a-boot?” (About)
Step Two: “Can you say oot?” (Out)
Step Three: “Can you say sow-ry?” (Sorry)
Step Four: “Do you watch Degrassi?”

And that’s just about how it goes every time. Most of the time, when I meet a new group of Americans, there are a few days where my cultural and linguistic “other-ness” is the highlite of the day, and then we move on. But not so for the past two weeks.

These past two weeks, I have been working with a group of teens who have felt the need to reference my being from Canada at least once an hour. I am constantly made aware of the fact that I am supposedly “different,” “the stranger,” and “the other.” While I can take it all in stride and know that they bear no real malice, I’ve come to grow quite concerned at what appears to be an increasing level of xenophobia, or at least a growing perception of disparity between Canadians and Americans. Perhaps it is a result of current foreign policy in both countries, or maybe it’s related to education; whatever the case may be, it is a disturbing reality.*

The past two weeks have been intriguing. They’ve been a continual reminder that in the 21st century, the notion that we all “inhabit separate worlds,” is not only false, but destructive. It is quite true that we all percieve the world differently and interact within it in (sometimes vastly) different ways, but it is clearly the same world. The (slowly) growing realization that environmental protection is not a series of national crises, but a singular international one is proof positive of this reality.

When we waste time highliting the differences between Canadians and Americans, we lose the opportunity to talk about meaningful things. When we waste time questioning our compatability, we lose the opportunity to make positive change in the world.

The more we percieve non-existent disparity to exist between cultures, the more it has a chance to actually exist. We self-actualize our differences… they aren’t forced upon us by outsiders. Such a simple reality to confront – shouldn’t we be able to start with educated teenagers from America?

*I should note that after making reference to my concerns, I have been approached by a number of the kids who offered sincere appologies. I laughed it off and told them I knew that it wasn’t intended to be hurtful, but reminded them that one of the highest Jewish values is welcoming the stranger. A good learning opportunity for them.


The whole staff community is sitting on a grassy hill at night, watching a movie “drive-in” style. In the dark, outside at night, mosquitos hover around everyone. Nobody seems to mind. Most of the guys try to sit next to as many girls as possible, and most of the girls don’t seem to mind. People are having a good time. Then, for a moment, the whole camp seems to get brighter. Is something wrong with the movie projector? No, it’s fine. Did someone turn the lights on? No, it’s staff week — people still don’t know where the light switches are.

Then we a look up.

Something is falling from the sky. Something big. A piece of celestial rock, perhaps. It is streaking through the sky, burning up, creating the brightest show any of us have ever seen.

A white glow shines on everyone’s faces.

And someone calls out from the front of the hill, “God is awesome!”

Everyone laughs, then turns back to the movie.

A simple reaction to an awesome event. An everyday word is returned to its original meaning. For a brief, fleeting moment, we all stared in awe at the presence of God in a piece of cold, icy, rock hurtling through the atmosphere.

It was awe-some.